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Seminar 3 - Beyond genetic kinship: Donor conception

Wednesday, 11 May 2016, 09:30 - 16:30

Manchester, Open University office For the venue address, information about travel to the venue including parking:

This event will explore psychological implications of emerging family forms

Update: Presentation Slides now avaliable at the end of this page 

This event is part of the series New frontiers of Family and will explore the following theme: Beyond genetic kinship: Donor conception. It is is sponsored by the British Psychological Society and supported by The Open University, Birkbeck, University of London and the University of the West of England, Bristol.

New frontiers of family - seminar series

Further details here:

This seminar series is approved by the British Psychological Society (BPS).


9:30-9.50: Registration

9.50-10.00: Welcome from the New Family Frontiers seminar team

10:00-11:00: Professor Eric Blyth, University of Huddersfield

Keynote –  Assisted fertility and its impacts on family formation - collaborative reproduction

11:00-11:30: Morning break

11:30-12:30: Dr Petra Nordqvist, Manchester University

Questions of kinship and genes: Donors, boundaries and tantalising knowledge

12:30-1:30: Lunch break

1:30-2:30: Dr Naomi Moller, The Open University

Embryo donation for family building: Troubling families?

2:30-3:30: Afternoon break

3:00-4:00: Dr Fiona MacCallum, University of Warwick

Family relationships and disclosure in embryo donation

4:00-4:30: Questions from the floor and closing remarks from  from the New Family Frontiers seminar team


Talk outlines

Keynote – Assisted fertility and its impacts on family formation (Professor Eric Blyth) 

It is estimated that assisted fertility procedures have resulted in the birth of more than 5 million children worldwide since the first IVF birth in 1978.  Most of these children have been conceived using the gametes of the adults who intend to raise them and have been gestated in the womb of their genetic and nurturing mother. However, modern technologies enable the sperm of any one man and the genetic material of any women (or of any two women) to be used to create one or more embryos that may be implanted in the uterus of any woman. The resultant child[ren] may be raised by any one or more parent who may be of either gender, and who may or may not be a genetic parent of the child - thus facilitating a diverse range of potential family forms, including where half- and fully- genetically related siblings may be born years apart and raised in different families. Provisions exist in some jurisdictions that enable a donor-conceived individual to access information about the existence and identity of other people to whom they may be genetically related as the result of gamete or embryo donation or surrogacy, although most of the world’s jurisdictions do not permit this. The presentation will provide an overview of the different family forms that may be established following gamete or embryo donation and what current research tells us about these forms of assisted fertility procedures.

Questions of kinship and genes: Donors, boundaries and tantalising knowledge (Dr Petra Nordqvist)

This paper explores genetic links in families of donor conceived children by focusing on how such families engage with and experience the genetic relationship between the donor conceived child and their donor. It might be assumed that the donor fades into insignificance once conception using donor eggs or donor sperm is achieved, and so can comfortably disappear out of the minds of parents and their children without trace. However, in a recent sociological study ‘Relative Strangers (with PI Carol Smart) at the University of Manchester, UK of family life after donor conception (2010-2013), we discovered that the genetic relationship to such ‘relative strangers’ continue to play on the minds of parents and their families, and it continues to shape family life, meanings and practices as children by donor conception grow up. In this paper I explore the meaning attributed to the donor relationship, and genetic relationships passing through him or her, in unknown donor arrangements (where the donor is unidentified to the parents and child) and known arrangements (where the donor is a family member or friend). Addressing these different donation practices, I suggest that donors represent a cultural unknown that require parents and their families to engage with an unimportant yet threatening, tantalising yet forbidden, potent yet unresolved aspect of their children’s lives and identities.

Embryo donation for family building: Troubling families? (Dr Naomi Moller)

Ongoing developments in assisted reproductive technologies continue to engender new pathways through which people experiencing infertility may conceive or birth children and these pathways may ‘trouble’ conventional genetic understandings of family. One such pathway involves donated ‘leftover’ IVF embryos. The number of children born as a result of embryo donation (ED) continues to grow both in the UK and internationally, and there is significant potential for further growth given the number of embryos in cryogenic storage globally (in the UK alone, up to over 60,000; HFEA, 2015). Yet despite growth in the use of ED, the experiences of embryos donors have received far less attention than sperm or egg donors. There is some research on: (a) disposition choices in relation to frozen embryos; (b) legal and ethical issues and frameworks; and a little on (c) parental practices in terms of disclosure of the ED children’s origins; and (d) the psychological functioning of children born as a result of ED (e.g. MacCallum & Keeley, 2008). In addition there is research on egg and sperm donation which focuses on how recipient families and donor-conceived children understand kinship (e.g. Nordqvist & Smart, 2014). However the lack of research focussed on the experiences and understandings of family and family well-being of either ED donor or recipient families means that it an open question how such families understand and negotiate their ‘troubled’ status. This paper outlines research on public understandings of ED and considers some potential consequences of this gap in the literature.

Family relationships and disclosure in embryo donation (Dr Fiona MacCallum)

Embryo donation is a treatment where an embryo created by the gametes of one couple is donated to another couple who then rear the resulting child. Conceiving a child through embryo donation results in a family structure where neither rearing parent is genetically related to the child, and indeed the child may have a full genetic family elsewhere, thus paralleling adoption in structure. However, unlike adoptive parents, embryo donation parents experience the pregnancy and birth of the child. The research to be discussed explores whether embryo donation families consequently resemble adoptive families or are more similar to families created through other types of ART, and what more generally are the effects of this method of family formation. Evolutionary psychology suggests that parental investment in children, and the subsequent quality of parenting, can be significantly affected by the genetic relationship. Thus, one question is does the complete lack of genetic links in embryo donation have adverse consequences for family relationships? With regard to the gestational relationship, there is some evidence showing psychological bonding of mothers to children begins prenatally. This gives rise to a second question; does the gestational link in embryo donation result in more positive family relationships than are present in adoptive families? Finally, the issue of disclosure of children’s genetic backgrounds will be considered. Do embryo donation parents follow the full disclosure model usually seen in adoption? Or are they more in line with gamete donation parents, many of whom have shown a reluctance to share this information? And where embryo donation parents are in favour of disclosure, exactly how, when, and what do they tell their children?


Speaker biographies

Eric Blyth is Emeritus Professor of Social Work at the University of Huddersfield. His career in included 12 years in social work for an English local authority and thirty two years at the University of Huddersfield. During his academic career he also held visiting and honorary professorial posts at universities in Canada, Hong Kong and Singapore. He was a founder member of the British Infertility Counselling Association, and was consultant editor of the Journal of Fertility Counselling between 1998 and 2003. For more than twenty years he has been involved in research and policy development in assisted human conception. His particular interests have been in the area of third party assisted conception, having undertaken research into surrogacy arrangements, egg, sperm and embryo donation and cross border reproductive services in the UK, Canada, the USA as well as internationally. He has authored or co-authored 74 papers published in peer-review journals, 26 chapters in edited books, and 31 refereed conference papers. He was a long-standing member of the British Association of Social Workers Project Group on Assisted Reproduction (PROGAR), one of whose major policy contributions was to advocate for the removal of donor anonymity in the UK – a campaign that successfully led to the abolition of donor anonymity in the UK from 2005. He is currently an advisory panel member of the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority (Australia).

Dr Petra Nordqvist is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Manchester and a member of the Morgan Centre for Research into Everyday Lives. Her research is in the areas reproductive technologies, kinship, intimacy and sexualities with a particular focus on donor conception and its impact on family relationships. She has recently finished a project exploring non-genetic kinship in the context of assisted conception funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (together with Prof Carol Smart, PI). Her co-authored book ‘Relative Strangers: Family Life, Genes and Donor Conception’ (Palgrave Macmillan 2014) with Carol Smart, draws on this project. Previously, she has researched lesbian donor conception specifically, and her publications include, ‘“I’ve redeemed myself by being a 1950s “housewife”: Parent-grandparent relationships in the context of lesbian childbirth’, Journal of Family Issues (2015), ‘Choreographies of sperm donations: Dilemmas of intimacy in lesbian couple donor conception’, Social Science and Medicine, (2011) and ‘Bringing kinship into being: Connectedness, donor conception and lesbian parenthood’ Sociology (2014).For more information please see: here

Dr Naomi Moller is a Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at The Open University and Co-Director of the Families, Relationships and Communities research group in the Department of Social Sciences research centre CCIG. A Chartered Psychologist who came into academia from a career in newspaper journalism, she completed her doctorate in Counselling Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin in 2006. To date, Naomi has published 25 outputs (journal articles and book chapters) in a range of areas relevant to counselling theory, research and practice, using both qualitative and quantitative methods, including family and couple counselling and attachment theory. Naomi has published recently on infidelity and family therapy and is currently collecting data on perceptions of embryo donation. Naomi is also one of the New Family Frontiers seminar team, who won funding from the British Psychological Society for this seminar series. Naomi maintains a small therapy practice.

Dr Fiona MacCallum is an Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Warwick. She has been involved in the study of the psychology of assisted reproduction since 1996, and since then has researched the topics of new family forms, including embryo and gamete donation amongst others. In 2004, she received her PhD at City University, London, for a research project examining parent-child relationships and children’s social and emotional development in families with young children conceived through donated embryos, and comparing them to families with adopted children and those with children conceived through IVF. In particular, there was a focus on the influence of the absence of genetic relationships in these families, alongside that of the presence of gestational relationships. Subsequently, she followed the families up to see how these issues develop as the children get older.  She has published several papers and book chapters on embryo donation from psychological and ethical perspectives, looking at viewpoints of all three parties involved: recipients, offspring and donors. She is currently supervising research conducted by a graduate student, Nicola Doherty, examining disclosure in families created through embryo donation, and looking in-depth at exactly what parents actually say to their children about how their family was formed.


NB: This seminar is sponsored by the British Psychological Society and supported by The Open University, Birkbeck, University of London and the University of the West of England, Bristol. The seminar is free to attendees however there are limited places (32), so booking is required.


To register and reserve your place at the conference please click this button [REGISTER]

If you have any specific queries please contact Jennifer Scarna, E-mail: